Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: Something is Not Right
Everyone knows the world is not right. Something is terribly wrong. We see it in society as protests turn into riots, in mass murder, war, the lack of peace and mutual respect in political discourse, tyrannical government, and so on. We see it in our bodies as we become sick and grow old, the variations of the coronavirus, our inability to keep New Year’s Resolutions, in abuse, addiction, and so forth. We see it also in our souls with our longing for peace and justice, in depression, loneliness, our pattern of falling into habitual sins, and other things.
Our usual answer to these problems is to have more of us and solve the problem ourselves—”I just need to do more,” “I just need to be better,” “I just need to try harder or pray harder,” “we just need to have the right policies to make the world a better place,” and on it goes.
But we cannot will ourselves to be joyful in the midst of depression even though we know Jesus loves us and has redeemed us. We seldom fulfil our New Year’s Resolutions, and if we do, the joy of success if fleeting. And policies change with the wind as political dominance shifts. And so on. As we inevitably find out, more of us only makes our problems worse. Rather, God has already solved the problem. As we will see, Baptism is God’s antidote to our miserable condition.
Why Was Jesus Baptised?
At the most basic level, we know we need to be baptised because we’re sinners, but Jesus isn’t a sinner, so why was He baptised? Even John the Baptiser gets confused. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Baptism, Jesus gives us the answer Himself: “to fulfil all righteousness” [Matthew 3:15]. As far as what this means, we are blessed to have such a historic faith in our church body because the Church Fathers have already helped us with this question thousands of years ago.
In the 300s, a bishop of Mesopotamia named Archelaus wrote that just as the birth of Jesus was “for the sake of others who are sinners,” so is His Baptism [McDonnell, 20]. In other words, Jesus was not baptised for Himself but for you. Jesus Himself is without sin, but He was baptised because of the sins that our human flesh bear. Though He is without sin, by being human Himself, Jesus bore our sins.
Another way the Church Fathers described this is that in the waters of Baptism in the Jordan, a great exchange took place. In their view, Jesus deposited His perfect flesh and took upon our sinful flesh; and so, in Baptism we deposit our sinful flesh—or “our old self” as Paul calls it in Romans—and we take on Jesus’ perfect flesh. If this sounds a lot like the great exchange of the cross—that Jesus takes on our guilt and we take on His innocence—that’s because Jesus’ Baptism is connected to His death.
Philoxenus of Mabbug, a bishop of Syria, put it best when he wrote about the three stages of the economy of salvation, which is just a fancy way of saying the means by which God delivers salvation to His human creatures. The first stage is what we’ve been celebrating for the past couple weeks up until now: “from Mary’s giving birth to the baptism at the Jordan,” then the second stage is “from the Jordan to the cross, and, finally, the cross itself.” From this perspective, with Jesus’ birth as the beginning of our salvation and the cross as the end or goal of our salvation, then with Jesus’ Baptism being in the centre this means His Baptism is “central” to God’s mode of salvation’s deliverance to you and me [McDonnell, 73]. In other words, the Baptism of Jesus is central to His life and His death, and, therefore, to our life and death. This is what Paul develops further in Romans 6, which we’ll get to in a moment.
What he delineates in Romans 6 is what the Church Fathers considered Jesus’ Baptism as taking on a cosmic function. Clement of Alexandria put it this way, “‘For this reason the Savior was baptized, though he had no need of it, in order to sanctify all the waters for those who would be regenerated‘” [McDonnell, 55; emphasis mine]. In other words, Jesus was baptised to make all baptismal waters His Baptism in the Jordan. As we’ll explore with Paul pretty soon, this means you are baptised into Christ. This means that when your pastor laid his hands on you and baptised you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just as Christ commanded, the heavens broke open and the Holy Spirit descended upon you just as it occurred over the Jordan River, and God the Father announced, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased” [Luke 3:22].
Baptism’s Effect and Calling
This divine adoption is what Paul begins to develop in Romans 6. Generally speaking, the preceding chapters dealt with justification—that by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, you are justified. Chapter 6 deals mostly with sanctification, although it does have echoes of justification. So, even though the conversation is shifting, this does not mean we separate sanctification from justification; they are deeply interconnected.
This is why Paul presents the question, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” [v. 1]. In other words, “Because I am justified by faith, does this mean I can keep living freely in sin so that I can keep receiving grace upon grace?” Paul answers the question with a double negative, “By no means” [v. 2], which might we as well be a swear word in Greek to stress the absurdity of sinning so that grace may abound even more. This would be akin to forcing yourself to vomit just so you can eat more.
In Baptism, the logical law of non-contradiction applies: two things that contradict each other cannot both be true. So, Paul asks rhetorically, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” In other words, “Death and life cannot coexist” [Murray, 213]. As Paul develops further in the subsequent verses, the baptised believer cannot live in the realm of sin since you have been transferred to another realm. This is similar to what Peter says, that Christ has “called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” [1 Peter 2:9]. In your Baptism, you were transferred from the realm of darkness and sin to the realm of new life and light, the very life and light that belongs to Christ.
Paul begins to explain how this transfer takes place in verses 3-5: Because Christ’s Baptism has cosmically made all baptismal waters His Baptism and, therefore, the centre of His life and death, being baptised into Christ means you were also baptised into His death and, furthermore, into His resurrection (His life). Just as Jesus’ burial was evidence of His death, so your burial with Him in Baptism is evidence of your death to sin. Furthermore, since you have been buried with Him, then it necessarily follows that in Baptism you also rise from death with Him.
Death could not bind Jesus forever; it was inevitable that He rise from the dead because death cannot conquer God. Therefore, since you are united with the God-man Jesus Christ in His death via Baptism, then it is also inevitable that you rise from death, not just “newness of life” here on earth but especially eternal life, which is the life Christ has after His own resurrection.
This “newness of life” has a double meaning. First, “newness of life” is what we mean when we talk about sanctification. It is rather apt, then, that we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord only a few days after the new year because every year, we all see posts that whatever year it is brings us “a time for a fresh start.” But the new year is simply how we measure the Line of Demarcation combined with fiscal needs of international banking with some help from the Roman calendar. Then, with some strange amoeba of neo-pagan tribalism, we pretend that this “new year” has some cosmic power to make this new year good just because last year was so bad. But then the new year inevitably fails and disappoints us again as we repeat the ludicrous cycle of “last year was bad, so this year will be good.”
This is why Baptism is so vital to your life as a Christian. In the Large Catechism, Luther speaks of Baptism as the centre of the Christian life and death, just as we saw from the Church Fathers that Jesus’ Baptism was also central to His own life and death. Luther writes, “So a truly Christian life is nothing other than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever to be continued” and thus daily “purging away whatever belongs to the Old Adam,” or our “old self” in Paul’s words [LC Part 4, 65].
Each of us are born into sin, and Baptism begins life anew in Christ, and we begin each day anew in our Saviour. You are baptised, which means you don’t need to wait 365 days to start life afresh because Baptism gives you that opportunity every single day! More importantly, God purges your sins away every single day! That means every day begins with more of God and less of you. Baptism is like waking up every day and taking a warm bath in the Holy Spirit that cleanses you from the muck and grime of your sin and suffering. Every day, the “Old Adam” in you, or your “old self,” is daily drowned because Christ killed your sin in His own baptismal life and death.
This daily newness of life brings us to look toward the second meaning of “newness of life,” which is the share we have in Christ’s resurrection that Paul speaks of. Just as Christ was buried and rose from the dead, so it necessarily follows that when you die you, too, shall rise from the dead.
And of all things, Paul uses the language of slavery to describe this double meaning, “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” [vv. 6-7]. Keep in mind that sin is not a slavery we are forced to be consigned to. We voluntarily render ourselves to sin’s service. But you have died to the realm of sin. Since you have died to sin by Baptism, then it necessarily follows that you have been set free from your taskmaster. And one who has been set free from their taskmaster no longer lives in their service! Yet while we voluntarily choose to serve sin as our master, we cannot voluntarily choose to serve Christ.
Therefore, we must be bought, and the price was blood, which is the price we all pay eventually. Yet Christ paid that price on the cross with His holy and innocent blood, and in Baptism His death sets you free from your taskmaster. He has purchased you with His precious blood and has made you His own. This is why Paul, in the latter half of chapter 6, calls us “slaves to righteousness.” Jesus owns you, and this is a wonderful thing! You no longer belong to the realm of sin, death, and the devil but to the realm of righteousness and life. Being a slave to God means He has set you free from sin, or as the Greek literally says, has justified you from sin. Baptism, then, is God giving you His holy acquittal. We know things are not right in the world and in ourselves, so God has put you in the right—has justified you—in Christ His Son.
This echo of justification by faith follows in verse 8, which restates verses 3 and 5, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with HIm.” We believe means everything we’re saying about what God does in Baptism is a matter “of faith, not of conjecture, that the life of Jesus’ resurrection belongs to those who have been united with Christ in his death” [Murray, 223]. And it is also by faith that we not only believe that we shall live with Christ in the resurrection, but that we also live with Him in the here and now in the “newness of life” that we wake up to every single day—more of God, less of me.
Furthermore, it is by this faith that, verse 9, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him.” Because Christ, being raised from the dead, shall never die again, we can also infer from this that we likewise shall never die again, which Jesus confirms in His own testament about His resurrection after He raised Lazarus from the dead: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” [John 11:25-26].
Death may take us from this earth, just as it took Christ, but it no longer has dominion, or authority, over you just as it no longer has dominion over Christ. This means death has no finality over you, for just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so you shall experience a resurrection just like His.
“For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, and the life He lives He lives to God” [v. 10]. This once-for-all-ness of Christ emphasies two things. First, it re-emphasises that Christ died once and shall not die again; second, it emphasises that Christ died for all people, not just a select few. This means Christ died for you. That Jesus “died to sin” and “lives to God” is a parallelism of our dying to sin and living to Christ in verses 2 and 11. In Baptism, we die to sin because Christ died to sin (that is, He took upon our sin in His flesh in His Baptism and crucifixion), and we live to Christ because in His own resurrection Christ lives to God.
To be clear, “It cannot be said of Christ that sin exercised its power over him in the same sense in which it ruled over us” [Murray, 225] since we give ourselves voluntarily over to sin and Jesus is sinless. Rather, it means that just as Christ bore the guilt of our sins while remaining guiltless, He also bore the power of sin, which is death, as Paul makes clear in verse 23, “the wages of sin is death.”
Jesus paid our wages. But in His own death, Jesus sabotaged Death itself, and by the power of His resurrection He overthrew Death’s authority with His life and glory. Humans die, so Jesus died; but Jesus is also God, so He slew Death. This is the life and victory that is given to you in Baptism.
Therefore, to conclude this section, Paul commands, “So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” [v. 11]. I prefer the translation “reckon” instead of “consider” because “consider” in our day has the connotation that you need to think about whether it’s true for you or not—”consider it”; whereas “reckon” means count yourself as this. You are not to “consider” whether this whole thing about Baptism is true for you or not. Rather, you are to recognise it as true for you. Neither are you commanded to die to sin and live to God because they already happened in your Baptism not by your doing but by God’s efficacy in the power of His Word and Spirit.
Rather, you are commanded to count yourself as what God has already done in your Baptism—that you have died to sin and have been made alive in Christ, that you have been transferred from the realm of darkness and sin to the realm of life and light. In other words, you are commanded to acknowledge what Christ has done to you in your Baptism that is a share in His own Baptism.
The words that God the Father spoke at Jesus’ Baptism, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased,” are the same words God spoke when you were baptised. Yes, ladies, even you have become sons of God. Because in the ancient world, only sons received their father’s inheritance; therefore, as women, you receive the Son of God’s inheritance from His Father as if you were sons, which is eternal life in Christ Jesus. And inheritances only come when somebody dies. This inheritance was made yours when Jesus died for you, to which you were united in your Baptism and died to sin and also rise to new life here and now, every day of every week, as well as the eternal life that is to come. Amen.
McDonnell, Kilian. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996.
Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1968.